I’ve got the builders in again, increasingly a phrase which sounds like a debilitating rash rather than a hopeful development for the future. Anyway, our builder, Kevin, tends to play his Radio, on one of two channels, Radios 1 and 2 from good old Auntie Beeb, that is the BBC for anyone under 50. Apart from being amazed at the irony of Radio 2 now paying all the music, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Mike Oldfield and so on, which Radio 1 refused to play when I was a teenager, preferring instead the Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter and the Rubettes, I am also struck at how Radio 1 since its inception in 1967, has managed to be so consistently atrocious in its choice and promotion of music. Instead of playing the best of contemporary music Radio 1 has almost without exception favoured the lowest common denominator, supposedly justified by the ‘charts’. Moreover pathbreaking and music centered presenters like the great John Peel, and Alexis Korner, were consistently marginalised in favour of presenters who seemed to consider themselves more important than any music they were playing. I can still remember the way in which Jimmy Saville pronounced the word Showaddywaddy when introducing the group more than I can anything which they actually released.
The great tragedy of all this is that through much of this time British popular music has dominated the world. In the 1960s The Beatles were only a small tip of an incredible iceberg which included the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Cream, The Moody Blues and a host of others. In the 1970s Britain dominated with the five bands which, as one promoter said, could have sold out an auditorium anywhere in the world, they were: the Rolling Stones, The Who and Pink Floyd, joined by Led Zeppelin and Yes, and behind them were groups like Genesis, and some who made the crossover into the charts and so were more acceptable to the Beeb, like 10cc, David Bowie, Queen, and Roxy Music. Incidentally many of these bands, including the latter, received their first airing on national radio due to one man: John Peel. Following this we had the rise of punk and New Wave, in which again Britain dominated with groups like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Buzzcocks, XTC, The Jam, Heaven 17, the Human League, and, again, many more. We even did pretty well in those genres which were more popular in the US than here, like Heavy Metal (where an argument could be made for Deep Purple and even, God forbid, Black Sabbath, as originators), with bands like AC/DC (okay a hybrid I’ll grant but still spiritually Brit), Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Def Leppard.
More recnetly the failings of Radio 1 led to the creation of Radio 6 to highlight contemporary music, and then the threat of its closure for lacking commercialism. Meanwhile the British music industry has become dominated by the sterile conservatism and bland musicality of the monstrous Pop Idol and X-Factor creations led by Simon Cowell. Great for Simon Cowell but dreadful for Britain and for music.
Why was British contemporary music so influential, and so popular, in the 1960s through to the 1990s? I believe the major factor is that British bands had to make their reputations playing live in front of an audience before they could achieve wider success. Indeed for many of them this became part of the band’s creation myth. The Beatles and their legendary residency in Hamburg, the Pink Floyd playing at the Middle Earth club, alongside the likes of Fairport Convention part of a British folk explosion which would inspire Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones originating as Alexis Korner’s session band, Led Zeppelin formed out of that ultimate clubbing band the Yardbirds, even those prog rockers to beat all progs, Yes, started as a live band and musicians like Rick Wakeman were already well known for their live performances with the likes of the Strawbs. This then fed into punk/New Wave and beyond. Britain was lucky on this score. Live national success wasn’t open to bands in the US because you simply can’t play live everywhere in the US, so good live bands got local reputations (state wide or beyond) but only reached a national audience if they were picked up by coast-to-coast radio, giving the music industry a stranglehold of US national popular music. Indeed many US bands made a success of themselves in Europe before going back to the US, Jimi Hendrix is probably the most obvious example, but the likes of Blondie and Talking Heads also traded on European success.
Unfortunately much of this has gone with the move away from pubs and live music clubs as venues, partly due to changes in lifestyle, partly changes in legislation. For the music buisiness this has been welcomed as bands which did not owe their existence and success to the industry machine were inevitably diffcult to control and unpredicatble. The music labels created specialist labels such as Harvest, the initial host of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and The Move, to isolate such bands, and in the later 1970s so-called independent labels such as Two Tone, Rough Trade and Chsiwick pushed many of the new bands into the popular domain. For the industry these bands are a product and the music is unimportant, the iconic illustration being, of course, when a top US record executive asked Pink Floyd which of them was Pink.
The point of this long rant for me is quite simply expressed: Why have we got a public service broadcaster, funded from our taxes, which cares more for the priorities and promotes the interests of an unaccountable music busin ess rather than promoting new and original music and engagement with new music in all its forms? In fact, we should not forget, the BBC is a promoter of exclusivity and elite competition as opposed to inclusivity and participation in other areas than music. You only need to consider the current male-only shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year to see that. It is, frankly, incredible that Amir Khan is on this list ahead of the likes of Rebecca Adlington, and what does Chrissie Wellington, three times world ironman (sic) champion, fastest female ironman competitor, need to do to get nominated? Are the small select elite exclusive group of Sports Editors and writers who create this list representative of anyone expcet the sporting elite with whom they regulalry deal? And how many of them are women? Perhaps it’s about time the BBC woke up to inclusion and representation, after all it is a democratically funded public body.